In this writing I offer a close reading of Kudzanai Chiurai’s recent use of stains, beads and magazine cover mockups. My eclectic selection pays particular attention to the materials of Chiurai’s practice. But it also attempts to read what could arguably be defined as the antithesis of materiality: the fashion logo and image making of the fashion brand. This awkward variety is perhaps a fair reflection of the artist’s multiple foci, guided here somewhat selfishly by my personal interest in the meaning of the textile across its varied guises.
Jenni Sorkin muses on the meaning of stains, observing that “Fresh, stains are the sores of a fabric, raw wounds that map an event. Aged, they are scars of retrospection. They function as both a remainder and a reminder of what has come to pass: both evidence and memory.” (78) Sorkin’s reflections on the stain as a mark both in the present and the past provides a useful starting point for reading Chiurai’s bloodied garment, Untitled (Dress from Moyo) (2013), included in the “Harvest of Thorns” exhibition.
Chiurai’s garment is fashioned entirely from bandages and sits on a carpet of dyed red animal skins; in place of the mannequin’s upper body red animal skin also appears. The red fur bears an uncanny resemblance to the red carpet recently used by Dutch fashion designers Viktor and Rolf. Known for their conceptual take on the games of fashion, Viktor and Rolf sent Red Carpet Dressing down the catwalk as part of their fall/winter 2014-15 collection. The gown and matching red shoes crafted from red carpet literally envelop the wearer in the symbol of prestige and honour the rolling out of a red carpet is intended to signify. But in Red Carpet Dressing the carpet is not beneath the celebrity’s feet, it is worn on the feet as shoes and swaddles the body as dress. The ritual of the red carpet arrival has engulfed the wearer. Viktor and Rolf seem to suggest fashion is an industry that consumes its audience.
Chiurai’s garment also appears in video work exploring the rituals of death and arguably sits far from these commercial critiques. But when considered in relation to the artist’s appropriation of magazine covers and use of references to fashion trends and branding, deserves a little further consideration. Where Viktor and Rolf present a crafted perfection out of materials we are meant to stand on, not wrap ourselves within, Chiurai wraps the entire body in bandages, creating a garment that could suggest healing if it were not so badly bloodied and stained below the waist. Are we to read here that violence too is an industry that consumes its audience?
The bandages look to be drowning in the task at hand – asked to cover wounds too large and absorb damage too great – as though the wearer has waded through blood. But the figure is seated and upright, not yet defeated by the damage she carries. Her neck is decorated with a necklace of stained rolled bandages. “Cloth holds the sometimes unbearable gift of memory.” (Sorkin 77) Is this another unbearable gift; violence that does not deserve to be forgotten? Perhaps the late Zimbabwean author Yvonne Vera can help us here. When interviewed by Eva Hunter Vera explains of her novella about the spirit medium Mbuya Nehanda, “Now when I started to write Nehanda, I wanted to write beyond the photograph, you know, that frozen image, beyond the date, beyond the ‘fact’ of her dying. If anything, in my book she doesn't die, she departs.” (77) Chiurai’s sculpture offers a partial figure dressed in a garment of wounds, but nonetheless upright. A version, like Vera’s writing of Nehanda, of survival.
Louise Bourgeois turned to bandages as a sculptural material late in her career, creating some of her most acclaimed and moving works from fabric. After her defiant use of scale and the “serious” materials of sculpture, Bourgeois’ bandaged faces posses a humility far more evocative than earlier works. Frances Morris refers to Bourgeois’ series of fabric heads as “the most arresting of recent works… a series of extraordinary upright and front-facing fabric heads.” (30) Both artists share the strategy of recording damage, be it physical or emotional, without suggesting that the subject is defeated.
Chiurai also uses crimson strings of beads much like a bandage, grafting a tree trunk body to a pair of Kudu horns, a type of antelope, in Horned Trunk on Cloth. The horns have lost their original setting and instead sit at an angle suggesting another larger animal, now with a tree trunk body. The new hybrid rests on a sea of blue animal skin. The body shape presents a far less ominous form than Nicholas Hlobo’s Ingubo Yesizwe (2009) which dragged a wounded body of leather and rubber stitched with ribbon across the floor of London’s Tate Modern. Hlobo’s sculpture is pieced together with leather and rubber. The new whole suggests a combination not at ease, perhaps heightened by the visible ribbon sutures holding the whole together while spewing from an empty hole in lieu of a head. Chiurai’s grafting together of new parts presents something more intact. His hybrid offers an elegance not particularly evident elsewhere his work – work that hardly shirks the responsibility of the gruesome or troubled.
The American artist Liza Lou, who relocated to South Africa between 2005-2012 reflects on the meaning of beads from her perspective as an outsider. In Durban Diaries, Lou writes, “Working with beads is a connection to an ancient struggle, a struggle I did not know. Since being in Africa, I have met women who can weave faster than other people can walk. Weaving is a way of getting somewhere. It puts food on the table, has agency in the marketplace. If you can weave something with beads, you’ve got skill. Maybe you can survive.” (19) The volume of beads Chiurai uses in Horned Trunk on Coth deserves our attention. After the blood red colour, and after the bandage-like wrapping of the beads we must acknowledge the sheer quantity of material used. This volume speaks to both the labour of the painstaking production and wealth their ownership could symbolise.
Chiurai’s mock-up covers of magazines — Esquire, Drum, Vogue and Africa Today — move attention from the material stuff of stained bandages and beads to the commercial logo. For instance, in the painting Vogue: the black issue (2008, oil on canvas) Chiurai’s version of the vogue cover page is graced with a portrait of Winnie Mandela. The original Vogue issue, released in July 2008 by Vogue Italia, is celebrated for running out of print twice, with later reprints even carrying the tagline “Most Wanted Issue Ever”. The issue featured black models and ran articles that focused on prominent black women.
References continue to collide in Chiurai’s several versions of the cover of the metrosexual man’s magazine Esquire. Black Diamond (2008) refers to inflation figures; another Esquire cover, Crowns, sets a male figure against a wallpaper background of repeating pattern of crowns. Chiurai’s version of the crown suggests the copy. It is not identical to the logo of famed watchmaker Rolex, but the pattern nonetheless smacks of aspiration – or perhaps more realistically the trade in counterfeit goods whose objective is to copy, but not too accurately.
(Chiurai does literally refer to the brand Rolex in a 2010 work that carries the brand’s title, a hand drawn crown with the accompanying text “when you are working tomorrow wear a Rolex”. But here the overriding message is not the appropriation of the brand symbol – in fact Chiurai’s drawing of the logo renders it childish and flimsy. Instead the crudely drawn female figure, legs agape, looks to be a take on Tracey Emin’s Something’s Wrong (2002), an appliqued blanket with similar female figure which also appears in the earlier mono-print Terribly Wrong (1997). (www.visualarts) But where Emin’s woman spills from between her splayed legs, Chiurai’s figure receives bullets directed into her body. In pink text “machine gun fuck” accompanies Chiurai’s spray of bullets. The logo and its aspirational connotations could not be demoted further.)
The Esquire cover title and model is stencilled and spray painted to suggest the aesthetics of graffiti art and tagging rather than the slick commercialism of the newsstand. Rather than staring directly out to meet the consumers’ gaze, this figure peers downward, hands shoved in pockets and hunched forward seemingly unaware of the viewer’s attention. Dressed in the style of late 70s and early 80s ska music, the figure wears a pork pie hat popular to the era and the suggestion of branded sport clothing such as Puma and Adidas. But perhaps most crucially something obscures the model’s mouth. Is he sick, vomit flecking his shirt? Or gagged – silenced by some blockage at this mouth and throat? Or an accidental blot of ink – a publishing flaw – that by an ill fate of chance obscures the real message carried by the cover story?
Chiurai’s clashes and juxtapositions leave me winded. References are picked up and put down; attention devoted to the material and the immaterial. My reading has been that of a magpie, picking and pecking at shiny things that sparkled to my eye. But I would hazard that the artist works much the same way. Horror is far from avoided, but at times it arrives with elegance.
Professor Jessica Hemmings
catalogue essay commissioned by the Goodman Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa
Hunter, Eva. “Shaping the Truth of the Struggle” An Interview with Yvonne Vera. Current Writing, 10(1), 1998.
Lou, Liza. Durbhan Diaries. London: White Cube, 2012.
Morris, Frances. Louise Bourgeois: Stitches in Time. London and Dublin: August Projects and IMMA, 2003.
Sorkin, Jenni. “Stain: On Cloth, Stigma, and Shame” Third Text. Issue 53, Winter 2000-01.
http://visualarts.britishcouncil.org/exhibitions/exhibition/tracey-emin-2004/object/somethings-wrong-emin-2002-p7709 [Accessed February 10, 2015]